SULTRY POPPY SEED TORTE

Ah, the humble poppy seed. For many, the mention of them in relation to baking may bring to mind merely a flat-line of emotion; the innocuous bagel garnish or scant afterthought in the ubiquitous lemon-poppy seed muffin (and frankly, if I never set eyes one of those again, I will be none the less for it). But poppy seeds have a whole world of flavor to divulge when used as the main ingredient.

From Czech, Jewish, Indian, and Turkish, and as far back as the Sumerians and Egyptians, we can credit a number of cuisines for elevating this inky little seed to noble status. My poppy seed radar, however, always makes a bee-line toward central Europe. Delve into traditional Austro-Hungarian pastries and you will find poppy seeds cast in the starring role as dark, moist fillings for strudel and mohnstriezel, rich paste swirled through kugelhopf – or as in this cake – unabashedly standing in place of flour as the main ingredient. In the following recipe for mohntorte, they are ground finely, combined with butter, sugar, lemon zest, and spices, to reveal an earthy, intoxicating personality.

A moist slice of Mohntorte.

I rediscovered this classic recipe while leafing through The Art of Viennese Pastry (1969) by the lovely Marcia Colman Morton. I have taken a few small liberties; adding two teaspoons of espresso powder and omitting the fondant icing as I find it a bit overly sweet. I topped the cake instead with apricot preserves and a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar. Please trust me when I tell you (against the irresistible desire to eat a slice still warm from the oven) that this cake is immeasurably better once it has rested overnight and the flavors given time to marry. The tang of the lemon zest plays off the rich chocolate, smoky notes of the poppy seeds…cinnamon, nutmeg and espresso adding warmth and depth…all combining to create complex layers of flavor. The wait will be torture, I know, but worth it. I promise.

This cake is utter heaven with a cup of espresso. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Come, dear reader, into the sultry world of the unassuming poppy seed…

Poppy Seed Torte – Mohntorte

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 c (2 ounces) butter
  • 3/4 c (6 ounces) granulated sugar
  • 5 eggs, separated
  • 1-3/4 c poppy seeds (6 ounces), finely ground
  • grated zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 tsp. Instant espresso powder
  • 1 tsp. Cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • roughly 2 T apricot jam/preserves, strained to remove large pieces
  • sifted confectioner’s sugar to cover cake top

Prep:

Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter and flour an 8” springform pan (or a cake pan at least 3” deep, bottom lined with parchment). Grind poppy seeds in a good metal-blade grinder, I find a coffee grinder works well. Break up any lumps and whisk together with lemon zest, espresso powder and spices. Set aside. Have egg whites in a separate squeaky-clean bowl, whisk, and granulated sugar (3 ounces) in a small bowl, at the ready.

Directions:

Cream butter and half the sugar (3 ounces) until very fluffy and light in color. Beat in egg yolks one at a time, keeping mixture fluffy. Beat in poppy seeds, lemon zest, espresso powder and spices. Whip egg whites until foamy, drizzle in remaining sugar, whipping until stiff peaks form. Fold in 1/3 of beaten whites to the poppy seed mixture to lighten it. Gently but thoroughly fold in the remainder. Pour batter into buttered and floured pan.

Bake for 1 hour or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Once cake is cool enough to handle (about 20 – 30 minutes) run a knife around the sides to release the cake and remove springform frame (if using a regular cake pan, loosen and turn over onto a parchment lined plate or cardboard, then flip back on a serving plate to rest).

Once cake is at room temperature, let it rest overnight, covered.

The next day with the cake at room temperature, spread a thin layer of apricot preserve over the top and sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. Pour some coffee and enjoy!

Store covered in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature to serve, sprinkling with additional confectioner’s sugar if needed.

Tip:

Because of the oil content in poppy seeds, they can go rancid easily. To prevent them from losing their fresh flavor, store them in the freezer in an airtight container (doubled freezer bags work also)

To buy fresh, quality poppy seeds in bulk, try these suppliers:

Kalustyan’s in New York City http://www.kalustyans.com/

Otto’s Hungarian Import Store & Deli in Burbank, CA http://www.hungariandeli.com/

© Veronica Wirth and The Buttery Fig

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TARTE ALSACIENNE – Alsatian Apple & Custard Tart

You can be certain the first phase of spring has arrived in New England when the day starts out sunny and pleasant and by the time you’re ready for that afternoon cuppa joe…it’s snowing. Yes, you heard right. I know…you’re jealous. I’ll definitely be needing something sweet to go with that coffee. You’re nodding your head, yes? Glad you agree.

I happen to have some heavy cream I need to use up and a few last lovely Vermont Cortland apples begging to be eaten before they’ve lost their tart crispness…now this is my kind of problem. The perfect answer to my quandary is an old and dear friend, a tarte Alsacienne.  Buttery, flaky crust cradling carmelised and flambéed apples, and just the right amount of creamy custard. To my mind, a perfect combination.

Let’s get started, shall we?

First for the crust:

Pate Briseé – makes enough for two 8 or 9 inch tarts

  • 250 grams/2 cups cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 135 grams/10 tbsps cold butter, cubed
  • 65 milliliters/1/4 cup ice water

After measuring, sift your dry ingredients together. Cut in the cold butter until you’ve got lentil-sized bits, then add the ice water and blend in. Don’t overwork the dough. Divide in two, wrap and place one in the freezer for a future something yummy (always prepared!) and the other in the fridge to rest for a half hour. Tip: you can make this ahead, chilling for several days well wrapped or thaw frozen Pate Briseé overnight in the fridge.

Roll out the rested dough, 1/8” thick, into a circle 2 inches larger in diameter than your tart pan.

Transfer the dough to your (un-greased) tart pan and gently work into the corners and sides, taking care not to stretch the dough as you work and thoroughly mending any little cracks or holes. Chill until firm, about 10 -15 minutes (or overnight if you want to do ahead).

Line the chilled shell with parchment paper, fill with pie weights or dry beans and blind bake until lightly browned. Once no raw spots remain, take out of the oven and remove the parchment and the pie weights or beans, setting the shell aside to cool.

While your shell is blind baking, get started on the apples:

  • 3  tart, firm apples (granny smith or golden delicious work well)
  • 25 grams/2 tbsps granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon armagnac (calvados, cognac or brandy are fine substitutes) pre-measured into a small ramekin or cup

Tip: you can substitute a good apple cider for the liquor if you want to do an alcohol-free tart.

Peel, core, and halve the apples and cut each half into five wedges.

Place a large sauté pan over medium heat. Once it’s hot, add the apple wedges moving them around here and there until they begin to brown.

Sprinkle the sugar over the apples, moving things around and adjusting the heat so everything is browning evenly. Allow the sugar to caramelize, but not too dark. You will gain colour quickly in the next step.

Are you ready to flambé? Done it before? No problem? If so, then jump right in and flambé the apples with the armagnac and cook for a minute or two to burn off the alcohol and to reduce the liquid. You’re looking for some nice colour and carmelisation, some dark brown tips and edges, but not burnt. Remove the apples from the pan and set aside to cool.

If you haven’t flambé-d before, please read my tips following before completing the step above. Be safe…I don’t want to hear any horrid stories involving fire and whatnot. Okay???

Tips for Safe Flambé-ing: 1) Let others in the vicinity know that you are about to have flames in the kitchen. “Fire in the hole!” usually works well. I’ve taken to saying it even if no one’s in the kitchen but me. It makes me feel rather invincible and cool. 2) Have a metal lid handy just in case you need to snuff any flames that get out of hand quickly. 3) Always move the pan off the flame to pour in the alcohol, returning to light it (or ignite with a stick lighter). Be ready to pull it back off if you have a low stove hood and high flames. 4) No matter how efficient it seems at the time, do not pour your booze directly from the bottle into the hot pan and resist the urge to start slogging the liquor in the pan. For one, you don’t want to set the whole bloody kitchen on fire now do you? I’m serious – this is FIRE we’re talking about here. Also, and probably the worse sin, you don’t want the liquor to overpower the other flavours of the tart. Restraint is a virtue. I don’t care what you learned in your college years.

Awaiting flambé

Now, get yourself a nice cup of java to celebrate your bravery in the face of raw danger and open flames.

While things are cooling, it’s a good time to mix up the custard:

Tip: custard can be made up to 1 day ahead and held covered in the fridge.

  • 1 egg
  • 25 grams/2 tbsps granulated sugar
  • 50 milliliters/1/2 cup milk
  • 50 milliliters/1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (use the good stuff)

Whisk together the egg, sugar, milk, cream, and vanilla extract. Strain through a fine strainer.

Arrange the cooled apples in the bottom of the cooled tart shell. Put your pan in the oven first, then pour the custard over the apples. Bake the tart at 250°F for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the custard is set.

Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Will keep for 1 day wrapped in the fridge.

It’s great for breakfast too!

© Veronica Wirth and The Buttery Fig, 2011.

TO-DIE-FOR Chocolate Ganache & Macadamia Nut Tart

Chocolaty goodness!

The Mediterranean sea is deep, azure blue just as I’ve heard it would be, the sun warm, and my thoughts are on dark chocolate…rich, glossy, mahogany-colored chocolate… A languid breeze brushes my skin as I finish my cigarette on the crew deck of the cruise ship I’m working on.

It’s late April and I’ve been less than two weeks on board as Pastry Chef and am seriously struggling with the schedule: 7 days a week, 14 – 18 hours a day.

I didn’t smoke before I boarded, but I smoke now.

Sleep deprivation and high stress do not a pretty combination make. Oh glorious weekend, where art thou?

Photo © John Gertz

Combing the back streets of Lisbon.

Today we are sailing somewhere between Malaga, Spain and Lisbon, Portugal. A day at sea means the dining rooms will be at their fullest. I have several desserts to prepare for this evening, one of which is a chocolate macadamia tart. As often happens when you step in to take the helm from another departed chef, you must learn to fly by the seat of your pants to a certain degree. For this dessert there is little description to go by and no recipe to speak of…some interpretation would be in order.

Given that the first word in the dessert title is chocolate, I deduce – as any chocolate lover would – that really good chocolate should feature prominently with macadamia nuts magnanimously offering up a supporting role with their toasty, buttery notes. I decide to use a dark ganache filling (luckily we are able to source Valrhona on the ship) slowly cooked in a ring mold, dotted with toasted macadamia nuts with salted caramel ice cream, chocolate sauce and chocolate garnish to complete the dessert.

The result was a dark silky disc studded with crunchy bits of toasted nut and buttery undertones. Smooth and delicate to eat, every bite rewarding with full flavor and richness. I was pleased to serve it, as was the Executive Chef, and it ran very well – always the bottom line. Compliments came back with the servers; it was a hit.

Show plate on the pass (since this plate must survive the long, hot hours during service, the ice cream quenelle is marzipan and not real ice cream).

Some weeks later, when a veteran pastry chef came on board, I was at last shown the intended execution for this dessert which turned out to be oceans away from what I had done. It did not prominently feature chocolate as an ingredient, the chef adding instead a mere sprinkling of chopped chocolate (the cheapest I am sad to report – yes, even five-star kitchens must succumb to the budget overlord – each chef dealing with it in their own way) to a very sweet, chewy, bar-like mixture cut into rounds. Now this wouldn’t have been my personal choice for the level of clientele we were serving, but out of mutual respect I think it’s always a good idea to keep an open mind as to individual interpretation.

Though our work is done within the confines of the kitchen, as a chef I feel it is vital to always put myself in the diner’s seat with the dessert I’m preparing. Besides the obvious taste and visual components, I must ask “will it be elegant and graceful to eat with no embarrassment potential?” (think poppy seeds or too much gelatin). Blame it on us pastry people being a little obsessive, but just I couldn’t shake the vision of some poor guest dressed in swank evening attire going in to wrest a bite from this tart and the entire dense, sticky disc launching off the plate into a perfect slow-motion arc to ping another guest 2 tables away squarely in the head…or landing in their glass of 89 Lynch Bages – or some other mortifying scenario.

So, call me a rebel if you will, but I’m going to give you the unctuous, silky and oh-so-chocolaty version that I would prefer to eat (and did…several I must tell you). And judging from the guest response, I’m going to venture out on a limb and say you will enjoy this rendition equally well. Break out the best possible chocolate you can get your hands on for this tart. I’m serious. It is the star here. You will thank me later. My choice? Valrhona Caraibe 66%. It’s dark and rich with warm, nutty notes that speak well to the toasted macadamias. But don’t just take my word for it, experiment and try different kinds! Don’t you just love doing R&D?

CHOCOLATE MACADAMIA NUT TART

Macadamia Påte Sucrée (yield = 3 – 8″ tart shells, approx. 1000 g) You’ll get best results if all ingredients are at room temperature:

  • 125 g powdered sugar
  • 250 g butter, unsalted
  • 3 eggs, large
  • 500 g cake flour
  • 100 g finely ground toasted macadamia nuts
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  1. In the mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the powdered sugar
    and butter until light and fluffy.
  2. Add the eggs, one at a time, making sure the mixture is homogeneous after each addition.
  3. Add the cake flour, baking powder and ground macadamias all at once.
  4. Mix slowly just to combine.
  5. Wrap the dough and refrigerate it until firm.
  6. While that’s chilling, preheat your oven to 180C/350F, make yourself a perfect cup of espresso and start your mis en place for the filling:

Tart Mixture

  • 225 g chocolate, 60% or darker, chopped
  • 215 g heavy cream
  • 65 g eggs, about 3 large
  • 95 g  whole milk
  • 200 g macadamia nuts, toasted and very roughly chopped – 150 g go into the tart, and reserve 50 g for sprinkling on top after baking.

Roll out and line either:

  • 1 – 8″ or 9″ tart pan or
  • 6 – 4” tart pans or
  • 12 – 60mm ring molds (If you are using ring molds, line a 1/2 sheet pan, dock, par bake, then press the rings into the crust while still warm).

Line tart pan(s) with parchment and fill with pie weights or beans. Par bake the sucrée until it just barely starts to take on colour. Remove the crust(s) from the oven, remembering of course to lower the temperature to 85C/185F. Let shell(s) cool while you make the tart mixture.

  1. Make a ganache of chocolate and cream; bring the cream just to a scald and pour over the waiting chocolate pieces. Let sit several minutes then mix from the center gradually incorporating the ingredients until dark, glossy and fully mixed.
  2. Combine eggs and milk, add gradually to the ganache, mixing constantly with a spatula, making sure not to shock the eggs and not to produce bubbles in the mixture.
  3. Mix in 150g of the roughly chopped macadamias. Fill tart shells to a bit below the crust edge or ring molds to about a good finger’s thickness.
  4. Bake in 85C/185F oven – low and slow baby– until just set. No bubbles should appear on the tops of the tarts while baking – this means the temp is too hot. (Should you notice some bubbles forming during baking, lower the oven temperature a little).

Depending on the size of your tart(s) and your oven this could take as little as 30 minutes and up to an hour or more. They are done when the centers are just set and not loosely jiggly anymore. The tops should be still glossy (if not, also too hot).

Remove from the oven and let them cool to room temperature. If you are serving that day, leave the tarts at room temperature. If not, refrigerate but bring out at least one hour before serving.

Sprinkle tops with the remaining 50 g chopped macs and garnish as you wish!

My Wine Pairing Suggestions: Ruby or vintage port, or late growth Cabernet would pair well with the dark chocolate here.

Tip: You can also store the unbaked mixture, well wrapped in the fridge, for up to 3 days.

Additional photo credits:

The Bacon Chronicles – Part Two: DOUBLE CHOCOLATE BACON COOKIES with a Kick

The Bacon Chronicles – Part Two: DOUBLE CHOCOLATE BACON COOKIES with a Kick

I left off my last installment of The Bacon Chronicles considering my love of bacon and it’s source (click here to read Part One). So herein lies my dilemma. I have the greatest respect for pigs, and I say that … Continue reading

LEMON CURD TART – lip-puckering zingy buttery lemony goodness!

LEMON CURD TART – lip-puckering zingy buttery lemony goodness!

I never used to care for lemony things until I had lemon curd.  Real lemon curd. You know what I’m talking about, right? The kind with tartness that made your cheeks ache ever so pleasantly, your lips pucker and left … Continue reading

HURRICANE BISCOTTI – Baking in a Blackout – Anise Hazelnut Biscotti

Anise Hazelnut Biscotti & Blue Quilt

Sunday our little state of Vermont was just one of many hit hard by Irene and she packed quite a wallop! Wet and wild, one only has to glance at the media to see the widespread effects of wind and water.

While my homefront fortunately came through it with just some power outage, fallen branches and a few new rivulets on the hillside, the historic part of my town saw a lot of damage to local buildings and businesses. It’s a tight community and everyone pulled together yesterday to help in the clean-up efforts but it will take some time for these good folks to recover from the structural and emotional upheaval.

The day after

As the storm ran it’s course and the rain continued we lost power a couple of times. I toyed with how to pass the time with no electricity. I could read I supposed – it was still daytime – but awfully dark and dreary. I could hear my mother’s voice “you’ll strain your eyes in that light!”.  Vacuuming was definitely out of the question. OH. DARN. Then I remembered that my oven is not electric, but gas. Well, jiminy cricket!

And what to bake? Hmmm…there was that biscotti recipe on my fridge I had been wanting to play around with that’s been gathering dust. I made some changes in the flavourings and adjusted the ingredients slightly and I think they came out quite nicely if I do say so.

Perfect for fortifying weary clean-up crew or simply dipped into a cappuccino or some vin santo as you remember what’s truly good in your life, I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

HURRICANE IRENE ANISE HAZELNUT BISCOTTI

Preheat your oven to 350F

Combine and set aside:

  • 10 oz (2 c) flour
  • 1 t baking powder
  • 1/8 t salt

Cream until light and fluffy

  • 8 oz (1 c) sugar
  • 4 oz unsalted butter

Beat in

  • 2 eggs
  • 3 T dark rum (cognac or brandy work well too)

Stir in just to combine evenly

  • 4 oz (1/2 c) hazelnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
  • 2 T anise or fennel seeds

Wrap and chill your dough for at least a half hour, up to several days.

Form 2 long logs on a half-sheet pan lined with parchment or a Silpat, leaving plenty of space between as they will spread a good bit.

Bake until just set and starting to colour slightly.

Remove and let cool, then slice and re-toast in the oven until lightly coloured and just crisp to the touch.

Store in a covered container for up to two weeks. These also freeze remarkably well.

Perfect mates 😉

CREPES AU SUCRE – Sweets for the Sweet

I do believe there are few things more pleasurable than walking around Paris on a chilly day and stopping at one of the crêpe stands for a toasty snack. One of my first memories of Paris is ordering a crêpe au sucre while walking through the latin quarter one damp and bone-chilling day in November a few streets from the Sorbonne.

A crêpe au sucre all ready for eating. Photo credit: lilylilyimages

I watch as the vendor ladles batter on a large hot round griddle and quickly swirls it around to fill the circle with a handled wooden spreader. Just a moment to set, then a quick flip to the other side. A nut of butter is spread around the warm crepe and finished with a generous sprinkle of sugar. He folds it in half, then half again, now in thirds, and nestles it in a cone of parchment paper. I pay and he hands me my warm little package wafting tendrils of steam against the brisk fall air.

crêpes on the griddle

I continue on my way, nibbling at my treat, peeling back the paper wrapping as I go. For the last couple bites, however, I stop and proceed with full attention. You see, the remaining sugar and butter have melted together and pooled in the base of the crepe cone so one must be careful not to end up with dribbles and squirts of crepe filling on one’s coat and chin.

Though, worse than a butter stain on my wool coat would be to lose the precious elixir. So I gather the top of the last bite in my fingers and lean my head back to take the slightly larger-than-is-prudent mouthful. I bite down on the folded crepe and am rewarded with a burst of buttery sugary heaven.

Suddenly, the chilly damp weather is not all bad. And is that a tiny shaft of winter sun I see peeking through that cloud?

Put on a little Charles Trenet and warm up your winter day with this recipe…

Classic Crêpe Batter  – yields about 15 crêpes

  • 200 grams all purpose flour
  • 40 grams granulated sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 pint whole milk
  • grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
  • seeds of 1 vanilla bean
  • 100 grams beurre noisette (melted butter cooked until milk solids take on a nutty color and aroma – delicious!)
  • extra butter and sugar for finishing
  • 15 – 12” (approximately) parchment squares, pre-folded in quarters, for holding the finished crêpes

Make the batter:

  1. – Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl.
  2. – Whisk together the eggs, yolks and milk in a separate bowl.
  3. – Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and gradually whisk in the milk and egg mixture taking care to avoid lumps.
  4. – Add lemon and orange zests and vanilla seeds.
  5. – Cover and refrigerate the batter to rest for a minimum of 30 minutes or as long as overnight.
  6. – About a half-hour before you’re ready to cook the crêpes, bring the batter out and let it come to room temperature.
  7. – Gently whisk in the beurre noisette.
  8. – Strain batter through a fine sieve.

You are now ready to start cooking your crêpes! You’ll need a small ladle to dispense the batter and you may find it helpful to have a pair of tongs and/or heat proof spatula handy for flipping. Have your parchment squares ready to receive the crepes.

– Preheat a non-stick crepe pan or sauté pan.

– Pour 1 small ladleful of crepe batter in the pan and immediately swirl around to evenly coat the flat surface of the pan.

– When you start to see bubbles in the surface of the crepe and the edges start to slightly colour and pull away a tiny bit from the pan, flip it over and quickly cook the other side, about 10 – 30 seconds.

* If your first crepe does not come out picture perfect, do not fret. The first crêpe out of the pan is usually a tad unsightly and it’s an ideal time for the chef to have a trial taste;-) Don’t be intimidated; it often takes a couple tries to get the hang of it and get the heat just right. Carry on brave soul…

– As soon as a crêpe is finished, flip it one more time (the first side, which usually looks nicer, will then end up on the outside), spread with a little butter, sprinkle with sugar, fold in half, then in half twice more. Nestle in a folded parchment and enjoy!

– Continue making crêpes until the batter is finished.

Tip:  Crêpes keep quite well. If you choose to make them ahead, layer them with parchment between each crêpe. Wrapped well, you can either refrigerate them overnight or freeze them up to a month well sealed in a freezer bag, taking out just what you need (beware, this is a dangerously addictive thing to keep in your freezer!).

photo credit: icanhascheezburger.com

Holy Crêpe. photo credit: icanhascheezburger.com

© Veronica Wirth and The Buttery Fig, 2011.